Everyone needs an escape from the relentless pressure that we all face in todayís feverish world. Whenever I felt overburdened with my clientís problems, or with my own, I would get my three boys together and weíd all go fishing. I donít know why it worked so well, but it did wonders for my sanity. As soon as the kids were in the car, and I got behind the wheel of our big Chevy custom van, all thoughts of my law practice and the harsh realities of my life evaporated like the morning dew on a hot August day.
It was on a Friday in August 1983 when the need for one of these therapy trips became abundantly clear. Cash flow had dried to a trickle, receivables were climbing and aging to the point that the Turner Law Firmís demise appeared imminent. It wasnít that I didnít have businessóbusiness was booming to the extent I could hardly keep up. Apparently the word had leaked out that I worked for free or was a sucker for a sad story. Usually I didnít let this bother me, but with the recent death of my CPA and the suicide of his wife, I was generally depressed and was tempted to curl up with a bottle of Jack Daniels. But when you have a wife and four kids depending on you, thatís not a viable option.
As the day slowly waned, I stared out my office window at the cars traveling up and down LBJ Freeway. This exercise helped me wind down when I got too too stressed out. Sometimes the tranquility of the moment would even lead to inspirationósomething I usually needed desperately. My daydreaming was suddenly interrupted by my secretary Jodieís deliberate voice over the intercom. "Paul Jones on line two."
The name sent a shudder down my spine. I knew what he wanted: money, the root of all evil. It should have been obvious to him that I didnít have any or American Express would have already been paid. He knew that, so why the phone call? Should I take it? Or, should I have Jodie tell him I was out. Better yet. Iíll take it and tell him to take a hike. That would feel good . . . but it would only piss him off and heíd just start calling more often. I walked over to the phone and picked it up. We exchanged frigid greetings.
"Your payment's late againóforty-five days," he informed me curtly.
"I know. . . . Iíll get something out to you soon."
"What seems to be the trouble? Our records show you pay this account consistently late."
"I know, cash flow's a little tight."
"Well if you know you can't pay the bill, then why do you use the card?"
My blood pressure began to rise. It really ticked me off when a bill collector asked a good question. He was right. I shouldnít have used the damn card. Every month it was a chore scraping up enough money to pay it. But did he really expect me to discuss responsible household budgeting with him? No, he was trying to embarrass and humiliate me.
"Youíre right. Just as soon I get the bill paid, Iím going to cut it up and throw it into the garbage. Then youíll never have to call me again."
There was a moment of silence. "Well, thatís not really necessary. Just send us a payment."
"Listen, I've had this card for three years, and everything's been paid, hasn't it?"
"Yeah, but itís always late."
"It may be late, but you always get the payment, plus your ten percent late fee. You should be happy I always pay late. You get all that extra money."
"Ah, well. I'll mark our records that you're going to have a check in the mail byó"
"By the weekend . . . hopefully," I promised.
"Okay, and try next month to pay this bill on time."
I let out a silent scream. He just had to throw in one more insulting remark. If we had been face to face I would have punched him out. "I'll do my best," I said and slammed down the phone.
I pulled out my checkbook and frowned at the negative balance. No matter how hard I worked, there was never enough money. As I was putting the checkbook away, Jodie walked in and said, "Maybe one of your deadbeat clients will pay their bill today, and you can send AMEX something."
Jodie, up to then, had always been understanding and sympathetic, but it didnít lessen my embarrassment. She probably regretted the day she came to work for me. Her check had even bounced once, but she just redeposited it without mentioning it to me. When I got the notice from the bank I nearly died. It was kind of surprising to me she still showed up every morning with a cheerful smile. She was a wonderful secretary, and I feared one day sheíd get tired of my financial instability and quit.
I forced a smile. "Oh yeah, somebody's bound to pay sooner or later," I assured her.
Jodie frowned, put her hands on her hips, and said, "Why don't you get tough with them, cut them off if they don't payósue them if you have to?"
I looked up at her somewhat surprised. It was the first time sheíd ever been so outspoken. She was a beautiful young girl and particularly sexy when angered. My pulse quickened. "Law practice isn't just about money, Jodie. Most of my clients want to pay me, but they can't always do it."
"I think a lot of them could pay you if they really wanted to."
"You think so?"
She nodded. "Yeah, it's just not a high priority to them. They know you won't do anything if they don't pay."
"You don't have much faith in human nature, I guess."
"No, I don't. Robert Taylor is a perfect example."
"Robert Taylor?" I said. "How's that?"
"Did you know he just got back from a cruise to the Cayman Islands?"
That bit of information blew my mind. Robert Taylor had come to me with hat in hand. He had been sued and wanted me to defend him. When I asked him for a retainer he moaned and whimpered about how broke he was. He promised heíd pay my bills promptly every month as soon as he received them. Gullible me agreed. "But he owes me three grand."
"I rest my case."
"How do you know he went to the Caymans?"
"When I called him about his bill, his secretary told me."
"That dirty bastard."
I turned, gazed out the window still in shock. I looked back at her. "Okay, I guess you're right. Get him on the line."
I nodded. Jodie eagerly left the room. That son of a bitch has been lying to me through his teeth. After a moment Jodieís voice came out over the intercom, "Robert Taylor on two."
I hesitated a moment thinking about what I should say, then picked up the phone and said, "Robert?"
"Yes, Stan. What's up? Don't tell me they filed another motion for summary judgment."
"No, I was just curious about your trip to the Cayman Islands. You didn't tell me you were going on vacation."
"Oh, yeah. Didn't I mention that to you?"
"No. Did you have a good time?"
"Sure, it's always beautiful there."
"Really, I've never been there myself."
"You haven't? You ought to go some time."
"I'd like to, but I have this problem with clients who don't pay their damn bills."
"Listen, Stan. I know what you're thinking, but we had planned this vacation long before I got sued. Gloria would have killed me if I canceled it."
"Uh huh. You begged me to take the case without a retainer. You swore to me you would pay all your bills on time. You said I had nothing to worry about."
"And then instead of paying my bill, you take a lavish vacation. I should have let them take a damn default judgment against you!"
"Come on, Stan. It's not like that. I'm serious. Gloria would have divorced me if I canceled the trip. You know what a pain in the ass she can be."
"Well, you better start sending me some serious money or I'm going to withdraw from the case."
"Don't do that, Stan. I'll pay you. Don't worry."
"It's not a matter of worrying, Robert. I've got bills to payólots of them."
"I'll send you something Monday, all right? Just give me a little time."
"Okay . . . but don't let me down or youíll be looking for a new attorney."
I sat back in my chair and took a deep breath. It felt good to let off a little steam once in awhile, particularly during periods of depression. I couldnít help feeling a little guilty though, coming down on him the way I had. Jodie walked in, smiled and asked, "So, is he bringing over a check?"
"Monday! Why not today?"
"He doesnít have it today."
"He would have had it if he had not gone on vacation."
"True, but his marriage is in trouble. He would have been in deep shit had he canceled his vacation."
"You're not buying that story are you?"
"Hey. . . . I've met his wife, she is a pain in the ass."
"He's just using you. Can't you see that?"
"No, I believe him."
Jodie shook her head. "You're so good to your clients. I just hate to see them take advantage of you. I wish they would just pay their damn bills when we send them. We shouldn't have to beg them to pay us."
"Maybe they need the money worse than we do."
"Yeah, you can tell AMEX that the next time they call."
"I couldn't sue a client anyway. Most of them are my friends. It wouldn't be right."
"Why not? You sue people all the time for your clients."
"That's different. Thatís them suing, not me. I'm just doing my job. . . . Besides there are too many of them. I wouldn't have time to practice law. Iíd be spending half my time in court suing my own clients."
"Okay. . . I give up. So what are you going to do about your dire financial situation?" Jodie asked.
I looked at her and smiled. Her anger had turned to sadness and depression. I sighed. Why was I such a terrible businessman? I didnít know what I was going to do. Then the telephone rang. Jodie turned and left to answer the phone. She yelled back to me, "Itís Robert Taylor again."
I frowned. What did he want now? Had he been holding out on me? Did he suddenly find some money to pay me with? I prayed that was the case but somehow I knew it wasnít. I lifted the receiver.
"Listen, Stan. I was just thinking. Do you ever get paid in kind?"
My heart sunk. When clients started talking about paying me in kind that usually meant I wasnít going to get paid at all. I looked over at the six pieces of ancient Peruvian pottery that sat prominently on the top of one of my bookcases. It was payment in kind from a missionary whoíd been down in Central America several years saving souls. Iíd defended him here in a civil suit stemming from a car wreck he gotten into while he was home visiting family. He swore on a stack of Bibles they was worth fifteen thousand easy.
"What did you have in mind?" I asked.
"Iíve got this great boat that I never have time to use. Itís just sitting out in the back yard and I know your boys love to fish. . . . How about we swap the boat for my bill?"
"What kind of boat?"
When I hung up the phone, I felt exhilarated. In the past, whenever we went fishing we were forced to fish off the bank, on a dirty old fishing barge, or, if we were lucky, a small John boat. This was not real fishing and I longed for the day I could get a Bass Trackerģ. Robertís boat wasnít a bass boat per se, but it was a nice combo ski and fishing boat that would be quite satisfactory. Jodie walked in and was shocked to see me smiling from ear to ear.
"Heís bringing in money?" She asked.
"No," I replied stifling a laugh.
"Then what are you so happy about?"
"Heís bringing me a boat."
"A boat?. . . Oh, my God. Tell me you didnító"
"Iím going fishing. I hear the striper are hitting top waters at Texoma."
Jodie looked at me incredulously. "But what about our cash flow problem?"
I shrugged. "Why donít you try to find me an expert on Peruvian civilizations. Maybe I can figure out how to unload that ancient pottery Iíve got in my office."
She looked at me incredulously and then up at the collection of pottery laden with dust, "Right. Thatís the solution."
I smiled. "Call the SMU library. I bet someone over there might have some ideas."
Jodie frowned like sheíd just remembered something. "Actually somebody was in here the other day and said I should contact the Dallas Museum of Natural History about the pottery. She said sheíd seen some similar pieces on display there."
"Really. So, why didnít you mention it?"
"I donít know. It slipped my mind."
I shook my head. "Well, call them."
"Do I have any more appointments today?"
She shook her head. "No."
"Good. Rebekah has a nursing seminar sheís got to go to tomorrow, so
itís a perfect time to go fishing."
"Okay then, since you obviously wonít have the money to pay me on the fifteenth, I think Iíll take off too."
That comment stung a bit, but not enough to dampen my excitement which was waxing by the second as I thought of gliding across Lake Texoma in my new boat. Well, it wasnít new exactly. Robert had said it was a 1975 model, but eight years for a boat wasnít that old.
"Good idea. Youíve been looking a little stressed out here lately. You could use the afternoon off."
"Fine. Iím out of here then."
Jodie started to leave. I looked at her and said, "Donít worry about getting paid. Youíre my number one priority. I couldnít practice law without you.
You know that, donít you?"
Jodie took a deep breath. She turned, looked back at me like she was going to say something. Then just smiled and walked out the door.
"Have a nice weekend," I said. "Iíll see you on Monday."
I cut the lights, locked the door, and headed to Robertís place to get my new boat. On the way there all I could think about was where weíd start looking for those stripers.
Rebekahís mouth dropped when I walked in the door at three in the afternoon. She glanced at the clock and then back at me. It suddenly dawned on me that Rebekah wasnít going to be pleased with my new acquisition. She looked at me warily. I wondered if there was anything I could do or say to lessen her inevitable displeasure over what I had done. Nothing coming to mind, I decided just to plunge onward and hope for the best.
"Stan, what are you doing here?"
"You wonít believe what I brought home."
"Really? What is it?"
Marcia came running in yelling, "Daddy. Daddy. Youíre home early." She jumped into my arms as she loved to do when I came home. I flung her around a couple times and gave her a bear hug.
"Yes, amazing, isnít it?"
I smiled and looked into her bright brown eyes. She looked just like her mother did when she was a girl. In fact, if you put pictures of them at eight years old side by side, it was hard to tell them apart.
After putting Marcia down, I said, "Go find your brothers. Iíve got a surprise for everyone."
"Oh. A surprise. Daddyís got a surprise!" she yelled as she ran off. Rebekahís look of apprehension was intensifying by the minute as she waited to find out what was going on. I smiled at her, but she didnít respond. A minute later Reggi, Mark, and Peter ran into the room with Marcia hot on their heels.
"Okay, come on outside," I said. "Itís in the driveway."
They all rushed out the front door and stopped in their tracks when they saw it. I looked at Rebekah and held my breath. Reggi broke everyoneís stunned silence, "Whoa! What a cool boat."
"Stan, you bought a boat?" Rebekah groaned.
The boys climbed eagerly into the boat. Marcia tried to follow them but wasnít tall enough to make it over the side. I grabbed her under the arms and lifted her inside.
"No, I didnít buy it exactly. A client gave it to me."
"Why would he do that?" Rebekah questioned.
Mark pushed a button on the dash and there was a loud, "Hoooonk! Hoooonk!" The kids laughed in delight. I couldnít help but laugh too, but Rebekah wasnít smiling.
"Itís an inboard/outboard. It cruises at thirty-five miles per hour. We can use it for skiing or fishing."
"Okay, whatís going on? Clients just donít give you expensive boats."
"It was a trade."
"Oh, God! You took this boat instead of money?"
"Well, you know Robert Taylor. He has owed me three grand for over six months. Iíve been pressing him for the cash but he just doesnít have it. So, I figured at least with the trade weíd have something the family could use."
Rebekah shook her head. "I canít believe you. We are destitute and youíre letting your client unload a worthless piece of junk on you."
"What are you talking about? Itís a beautiful boat and weíre going to have some great fun with it."
"Can we take it out, Dad?" Reggi asked.
"Yes, thatís the plan. We can take it to Texoma tomorrow while your mother is busy with her seminar."
"What about Marcia?" Rebekah said. "I donít want her out in the boat."
"Sheíll be okay. Donít worry."
"Four kids are too many for you to watch. Marcia can stay with my mother. Iím sure she wonít mind watching her."
"No. Mommy! I want to go fishing," Marcia moaned.
"No argument. You are not going fishing. Little girls donít fish. Maybe Grandma will take you to a movie."
Marcia started bawling. "I donít want to go toó"
Rebekah glared at her then turned to me. "See the trouble you caused with your foolishness."
"Listen. I donít need a bunch of crap from you. Iím taking my boys fishing. Itís no big deal, so calm down."
"Whoís Christine?" Rebekah said pointing to the Christine painted on the side of the boat.
"What?" I said. "Oh that. I think Christine was Robertís ex-wife."
"Wonderful. My husband is running around with a boat named after his deadbeat clientís ex-wife."
I laughed. "Okay. Weíll change the name if it bothers you. How about Rebekah One?"
"Donít do me any favors," Rebekah said, as she shook her head, turned and stormed back into the house.